19 October 1890 – 24 July 1915
The Eastland, one of five chartered excursion boats meant to ferry employees, their families and friends from Chicago over to the Michigan City shore for the annual Western Electric Company picnic, keeled over into the Chicago River while still at dock, trapping hundreds inside its hull and leading to the deaths of 844 of the 2,500 passengers aboard at the time of the incident which became known as The Eastland Disaster.
John was one of eight children (seven surviving infancy) born to German immigrants John Matthäus (who went by his middle name) and Barbara Oelschläger Blaich and was the younger of only two sons, though there was possibly an eighth surviving youngest sibling (more on that later). The family immigrated to the US in 1888 with their four oldest children and the rest were born in Chicago.
John had been working for Western Electric for a few years at the time of the disaster, and as his occupation was listed as shipping clerk on his death record and the 1910 census also lists that as his job (at a factory which checks out), it appears he had worke there for at least six years when he died.
The family had already suffered a great deal of loss before John’s passing. Mother Barbara passed away almost five years earlier in 1910, and Matthäus followed his wife just over a year later in late 1911. Both parents were only in their early 50s so even by the standards of the day, these were early deaths. As these losses happened shortly after the nearest census and John passed away five years before the next, the immediate aftermath of the loss of both parents among the siblings is lost, but from later information, we can glean that the older siblings were left to care for the younger.
Only baby Lydia who was ten years younger than her nearest-in-age sibling was school-aged when her parents passed. She would be the possible eighth sibling; however, due to some odd notes on the 1910 census and in John’s obituary, I think Lydia was actually John’s niece. From other records, her mother was most likely John’s second oldest sibling Mary who never married but would’ve been 21 years old when Lydia was born. On the census, Barbara Sr. did not change her answers to number of children surviving of children born from 1900 to 1910, repeating that she had seven children surviving of eight. even though Lydia is listed as her daughter on the same 1910 census. Most tellingly, though, is the omission of Lydia as a surviving sibling in John’s obituary which meticulously lists all of his other siblings. John’s obituary ran only two days after the disaster and was not repeated in the July 31 multi-page obituary commemoration that the Chicago Tribune assembled. It’s likely this means John was one of the first identified. His obituary omits any mention of the disaster so we get no details unlike in most of the July 31st write-ups. It’s possible some of his siblings attended with him and survived, perhaps due to some sacrifice on his part.
John, as the younger son, one of the youngest siblings, and as someone gainfully employed in an excellent job, would have been able to take care of himself by 1911, but it appears the unmarried siblings stuck together with at least a few of them sharing a home (and possibly with one of their married siblings though any evidence of that also falls between the census years). But we do know that the address listed on John’s obituary as his residence is the same one listed on his sister Christina’s (Tina) death record three years later.
Because the tragedies continued for the surviving siblings after John’s loss. Though no cause is listed, it’s not unlikely that Tina died in the Spanish Flu pandemic. A further tragic aftermath in the records finds Lydia’s probable mother Mary living at the Chicago State Hospital for the Insane on the 1920 census. Though her status was listed as inmate, she’s given an occupation and was listed as a ward worker.
There are many reasons young women were institutionalized in the first half of the 20th Century (and continue to be – #FreeBritney), and it’s possible an out-of-wedlock child or even ongoing “loose” behavior landed her in the State Hospital rather than some disorder we’d understand as a mental illness one hundred years later, but she very sadly died only a few years later in 1927.
On the Trinity Lutheran Church congregational records for her funeral, die hinterlassenen (the ones left behind) listed included two sisters, two brothers, and a daughter. At this point, she had only one surviving brother, so it’s likely a transcription error: she had three surviving sisters and one brother (it could also be a brother-in-law counted as a brother by the church and perhaps one of her three surviving sisters was not able to attend the funeral so was omitted). The daughter almost certainly was Lydia.
The headstone on the lot where John Jr. is buried was set for his parents, and there is no marker or inscription for John Jr. or for Christina and Mary, though I’m not sure they’re supposed to be interred in the same location. I’ll need to check with the office to find that out. It may be that there was a stone commemorating his death and that it did not survive, but just from the information available, I think maybe his siblings couldn’t afford to do more than bury their brother. I didn’t find any probate information for John’s settlement money. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, but it’s possible in the series of losses and tragedies the siblings were going through — or perhaps simply due to the fact that they were “only” siblings and no one had relied on him for financial support — meant they were cut out of any settlements. The aftermath of the disaster was as rife with corruption and confusion as any tragedy tends to be and certainly any that have taken place in Chicago.
RIP Blaich family
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